(Washington, DC, June 18, 2019) – Iran and its proxy forces are establishing a “land bridge” to the Mediterranean Sea, enabling the shipment of weapons and militia fighters to southern Lebanon, the Golan front in Syria, and other Middle Eastern hotspots. A new report released today by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) explores its feasibility, strengths and weaknesses.
In a foreword to the report, former U.S. National Security Advisor LTG (Ret.) H.R. McMaster, the chair of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP), writes, “This study is important because it reveals the Islamic Republic’s intentions, describes in detail a critical element of Iranian strategy, and recommends practical steps necessary to counter that strategy and promote peace.”
The report, “Burning Bridge: The Iranian Land Corridor to the Mediterranean,” comes at the height of Trump administration efforts to intensify economic pressure on Iran. However, U.S. policy toward countries through which the land bridge passes– Syria and Iraq– remains hesitant and beset by contradictions.
“Today, perhaps more so than at any other point in the history of the Islamic Republic, Iranian power is being expressed in geographic terms. It’s not just about the regime’s myriad proxies, it’s about their freedom to maneuver,” co-author and FDD Senior Fellow Behnam Ben Taleblu said. “Disrupting the regime’s land bridge is a vital national security interest of the U.S. and its regional partners.”
The land bridge is integral to the latest iteration of Iran’s struggle to dominate the Middle East. “The land bridge is a means, not an end, of Iranian strategy in the Middle East,” said co-author David Adesnik, FDD director of research. “It is in concert with Iran’s goal of exporting its revolution, and it strengthens Tehran’s regional proxies and partners while threatening Israel and other U.S. regional allies.”
Until now, Iran has relied mainly on aerial supply routes to reinforce Hezbollah and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but it seeks the security of a land bridge since the U.S. remains the dominant power in the air. The emerging land bridge consists of two routes: the Northern Route and the Southern Route, the second of which has upper and lower branches.
The Northern Route begins in Iran and moves toward the Rabia border crossing between Iraq and Syria. U.S. and Kurdish forces have effectively blocked this route, but a rushed U.S. withdrawal from Syria could easily re-open it.
Meanwhile, Iran and its proxies have already opened the upper branch of the Southern route, which runs through Baghdad and then follows the Euphrates River north and west to the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal. There are already indications of weapons moving along this route.
The Southern Route’s lower branch traces the shortest path from Baghdad to Damascus and runs directly through al-Tanf, a town located just west of the Syria-Iraq border. A contingent of U.S. troops has established a base at al-Tanf and created a 35-mile deconfliction zone around the town to keep the base secure. Iran and its proxies have tested the readiness of the U.S. and its local partners to enforce the zone, but without success, effectively leaving the lower branch of the Southern Route blocked. A full evacuation of U.S. forces from Syria would hand a major strategic victory to Iran by opening this route, which would be extremely difficult to close off again.
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Visit our website at fdd.org and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.